Sonnet 1 Decyphered – Updated with Audioblog

(Audioblog version of the following text)

In an attempt to learn how to write better, I have given myself the Bradbury Challenge. I will read poetry, short stories and technical articles in order to contemplate why they work. In this post, I will be working with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1.

Sonnet 1

“From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.”

-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 1

Initial Reaction

Shakespearean language is both beguiling and alluring to me. I think this is in iambic pentameter. Regardless, it sounds good to the ear, when it is read properly. My very first reading was a little stilted. I don’t know if making the lines rhyme, or fit the structure of iambic pentameter, is the reason I struggle with it. The language is arcane. Though I do believe it has been translated from an earlier form of English, I think it is meant to retain the structure and flow of the original work. I want to say Shakespeare and his contemporaries spoke Middle English, but I don’t know that for a fact. Also, it seems a bit off to say that English can be translated to English, but I think it can be given how languages evolve over time.

Initial Interpretation

The way I write poetry is to utilize each stanza to represent an idea. I am approaching this the same way. So in the most coarse and simplistic terms, this is what I think Shakespeare is saying in Sonnet 1. Of course it isn’t broken in to clean stanzas, so I am breaking it up. Honestly at this point I can not detect the rhyme scheme. I have read this piece three times now. Let’s see if it comes any clearer upon repeated reading.

Stanza 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:

Nature has made it so that people want to couple with the most attractive members of the opposite sex to see that humanity continues to exist.

Stanza 2

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

You (the subject of the poem) are so wrapped up in yourself that despite you having much to offer, you aren’t interested in loving anyone but yourself.

Stanza 3

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.

This is frustrating to the speaker of the poem who wants the object’s attention and affections and feels they are being greedy to not make themselves available.

Stanza 4

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

The speaker feels they may starve, deprived of the object’s affections. This feels a bit redundant. Is it my interpretation, the style of the Sonnet or a poor showing on Shakespeare’s part?

Upon Repeated Reading

This is what the rhyme scheme seems to be:

ABAC (This seemed off to me)

DEDE

FGFG

HH

However, I think I remember learning in school that it is actually:

ABAB

CDCD

EFEF

GG

As an aside, this is a little silly and off topic, but this is my blog and I can do as I please here.

The GG or couplet always tickled me as it seemed like a cute way to end these poems. Sonnets have couplets and Hebrew poetry has doublets because in Hebrew, poetry rhymes ideas, as opposed to words. Hebrew has gendered words which usually rhyme anyway, so the poetry stops being about making words sound alike and instead relating ideas to each other. That’s a cursory way to look at Hebrew poetry, but it always stuck out to me as interesting that Hebrew poetry is full of doublets, especially because I had just learned about Shakespeare’s couplets a couple years before my introduction to Hebrew poetry.

I have forgotten most of what I learned about Shakespeare in school and am attempting to put in the effort to divine the rules for his work myself by observing, questioning and testing my conclusions. Sonnets have 14 lines, consisting of 3 stanzas of 4 lines each with an AB/AB rhyme scheme ending in a couplet, as described above.

I didn’t grasp the structure earlier because to me “die” and “memory” do not rhyme. Did they in Shakespeare’s English? What was Shakespeare’s English? Is it the same as Elizabethan English?

On Second Thought

I am going to reiterate my first interpretation and add to it based on what I gleaned from repeated readings.

Stanza 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:

First Interpretation: Nature has made it so that people want to couple with the most attractive members of the opposite sex to see that humanity continues to exist.

Second Interpretation: Nothing to add.

Stanza 2

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

First Interpretation: You (the subject of the poem) are so wrapped up in yourself that despite you having much to offer, you aren’t interested in loving anyone but yourself.

Second Interpretation: The speaker is saying the object is harming herself in not coming out of her shell, so to speak. Maybe he is saying that she is causing harm to everyone by not responding to him. Let’s be real, this is about an unrequited attraction. He wants her, but she shows no interest in him. Further, he frames it as though she is only interested in or attracted to herself. It’s funny to me that in the last line of this stanza, he explicitly states that she is being unkind to herself by not responding to his advances. 400 years removed, it sounds a little creepy.

Stanza 3

Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.

First Interpretation: This is frustrating to the speaker of the poem who wants the object’s attention and affections and feels they are being greedy to not make themself available.

Second Interpretation: Here it seems like he is focusing on her youth. She is described as fresh, as heralding or bringing in Spring, which is one of the greatest symbols of youth and vitality. She is in her bud, refusing to bloom perhaps? Does that mean he wants her to remain as a bud, or that she is likened to a bud in that she has yet to blossom, sharing her fragrance with the world? I happen to enjoy a rose in full bloom, when it is fully fragrant, but rose buds that are partially open, are very appealing to my eye. Please understand I am talking strictly about botany here, but I understand that women and flowers have been linked in poetry for some time; know that I understand the reasons behind that. I am simply struggling to grapple with the dual meanings inherent to poetry. Every word is measured to have an impact. Each stanza can mean multiple things simultaneously. That is part of the appeal of art. On the one hand, this could simply be about likening the beauty of a youthful maiden to the innocent, amoral beauty of the Plant Kingdom, but there are more layers to it than that. He could be papering over risque talk with all this discussion of flowers and seasons.

Stanza 4

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

First Interpretation:The speaker feels they may starve deprived of the object’s affections. This feels a bit redundant. Is it my interpretation, the style of the Sonnet or a poor showing on Shakespeare’s part?

Second Interpretation: I think he is strongly appealing to her to give him a shot when he says “pity the world, or else…” It is almost as if he is trying to coax her out by saying if she doesn’t give him or love a chance, the world could end. I am uncomfortable with the speaker’s self identification with gluttony. It makes me suspicious. How many others has this fellow coaxed out of their buds? How many flowers has he greedily plucked for himself? Is the object of this Sonnet young enough to be coerced by his apocalyptic proclamations? Is this a pattern for dear old Willie? Am I erring too far from my objective here? Possibly. I am getting tired of this particular Sonnet and want to move on to the next. I hope next time goes better, as this has been a bit of a winding trek into unfamiliar territory for me.

After some investigation

I know I said I would try to figure out what defines the Sonnets, but I am not going to be silly about sticking to a plan and have it take me years to figure all this stuff out. I prefer to stand on the shoulders of giants. As my grandfather would frequently say, “Work smarter, pop, not harder,” so I decided to look into some of the questions from above. And I have answers to share with you.

First, I had to add to the questions to help better ground me in this topic I will be spending some time with.

  1. When and where did William Shakespeare live?
  2. When did he die?
  3. Who were the monarchs of his time?
  4. Did “die” and “memory” rhyme in Shakespeare’s English?
  5. What was Shakespeare’s English?
  6. Is it the same as Elizabethan English?
  7. What is Iambic pentameter?
  8. Did he use it in Sonnets alone, or plays as well?

Here are the answers

1. William Shakespeare lived in England from 1564 to 1616. He was born in Warwickshire and worked in London.

2. He died at the age of 62

3. Queen Elizabeth 1558-1603 and James VI of Scotland 1603-1625

4. Maybe. There is one source that says yes. LINK, another says no, but that I am reading the Sonnet wrong LINK, I’m not sure what to think here.

UPDATE: EME/Elizabethan English was written and spoken a good deal differently from Modern English. This awesome video explains it.

5. Shakespeare spoke and wrote Early Modern English

6. Elizabethan English is the language used in and around Queen Elizabeth’s time. Please see the linked video for details.

7. Straight from wikipedia, Iambic pentatmeter is: a type of metric line used in traditional English poetry and verse drama. The term describes the rhythm, or meter, established by the words in that line; rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables called “feet“. “Iambic” refers to the type of foot used, here the iamb, which in English indicates an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (as in a-bove). “Pentameter” indicates a line of five “feet”.  LINK

8. Shakespeare used Iambic pentameter in the Sonnets and in his plays.

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